How can it be?


All credit to the Yale Peabody Museum for having the courage to display this historically important object in their public gallery instead of hiding it in a basement. It’s the skull from the original mount of the Brontosaurus (= Apatosaurus) excelsus holotype YPM 1980.

Needless to say, it bears no resemblance at all to the actual skull of Apatosaurus, and the one they now have on the mount is much, much better:


But how did the YPM people ever arrive at this double-plus-ugly skull above? We see a similar skull in Marsh’s (1891) second attempt at restoring the skeleton of Brontosaurus:


But even this is not as ugly and Just Plain Wrong as the physical model they made. (Marsh’s first restoration of the Brontosaurus skeleton, in 1893, had a much less clear skull.)

So how did the YPM come to make such a monstrosity? What was it based on? Tune in next time for the surprising details!

Bizarrely, we’ve never really featured the  YPM 1980 mount here on SV-POW! — we’ve often shown individual bones, but the mounted skeleton appears only in the background of the much less impressive Morosaurus (= Camarasaurus) lentus mount. We’ll fix that real soon.


Illustration talk slide 58

Illustration talk slide 59

Illustration talk slide 60

The rest of the series.


Illustration talk slide 44

Illustration talk slide 45

Illustration talk slide 46

On that last slide, I also talked about two further elaborations: figures that take up the entire page, with the caption on a separate (usually facing) page, and side title figures, which are wider than tall and get turned on their sides to better use the space on the page.

Also, if I was doing this over I’d amend the statement on the last slide with, “but it doesn’t hurt you at all to be cognizant of these things, partly because they’re easy, and partly because your paper may end up at an outlet you didn’t anticipate when you wrote it.”

And I just noticed that the first slide in this group has the word ‘without’ duplicated. Jeez, what a maroon. I’ll try to remember to fix that before I post the whole slide set at the end of this exercise.

A final point: because I am picking illustrations from my whole career to illustrate these various points, almost all fail in some obvious way. The photos from the second slide should be in color, for example. When I actually gave this talk, I passed out reprints of several of my papers and said, “I am certain that every single figure I have ever made could be improved. So as you look through these papers, be thinking about how each one could be made better.”

Previous posts in this series.


Although it would be nice to think that our site views have octupled in the last day because of Mike’s fine and funny posts about what search terms bring people to SV-POW!, the real reason is that we were blessed by incoming links from both pages of this article.

Now, as any person who has ever accomplished anything whatsoever knows, it is super-important to avoid or you’ll still be up 23 hours from now reading, “6 Mind-Blowing Ways that Comedy Writers are Secretly Destroying Your Productivity”. (I’m kidding, that article doesn’t really exist–but if it did, I’m sure it would consist entirely of descriptions and links to six other Cracked articles). But that’s only true because most of the articles there hit the sweet spot at the intersection of funny, surprisingly informative, mercifully short, and well-written. would be a more honest URL, but I assume it was taken.

Anyway, I’d like to return the favor, so here’s a list of the 6 SV-POW! Posts Most Likely to Blow the Minds of Readers. If I missed some goodies or recommended some stinkers, let me know–the comment thread is open.

Amphicoelias vert reconstruction by Mike

1.How big was Amphicoelias fragillimus? I mean, really?

Who doesn’t want to read about the bizarre real-world mystery surrounding what might have been the world’s largest dinosaur? If you’re not sold, consider that the picture above shows a single vertebra that was–or at least might have been–seven and a half feet tall.

long nerves of sauropods

2. Oblivious sauropods being eaten

The mercifully short version of this much longer post, in which I consider the consequences of the world’s largest animals having the world’s longest cells.


3. The sauropods of Star Wars

Weapons-grade anatomical pedantry.

Umbaran starfighters

4. CONFIRMED: the Umbaran Starfighter is an Apatosaurus cervical

Yes, there is a ship in Star Wars: The Clone Wars that is basically a flying dinosaur vertebra. It took us about five weeks to unravel that story–the post linked above has links to the rest of the saga.


5. SV-POW! showdown: sauropods vs whales

Our original linkbait post. Don’t miss the shorter follow-up with more critters.

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

6. Friday phalanges: Megaraptor vs Saurophaganax

A deliberately goofy post in which I wax poetic about the largest predatory dinosaur claws ever discovered.

So, that was a big pile of superlatives and Star Wars. If you’re hungry for more substantial fare, you might start with our Tutorials page or our Things to Make and Do series on dissecting and skeletonizing modern animals. We also blog a lot about the evils of obstructive publishers and the need for open access to the scientific literature–you can find those posts on our Shiny Digital Future page.


A parting shot in my desperate quest for attention: this Star Wars ship flying around in the background in Firefly and Serenity is at least partly my fault–full story here. Oh, and my co-blogger Mike Taylor has written an insightful and affordable book about Doctor Who; read about it here.

Christine Argot of the MNHN, Paris, drew our attention to this wonderful old photo (from here, original caption reproduced below):

© Paleontological Museum, Moscow In the beginning of XX century, the Severo-Dvinskaya gallery (named after prof. Amalitsky) became the gold basis of the exhibition hall of ancient life in the Geological Museum of St-Petersburg. The museum hall was completed with a cast of the Diplodicus carnegii skeleton presented by E.Carnegy fund in 1913, at the 300-th anniversary of the Romanovs dynasty.

© Paleontological Museum, Moscow
In the beginning of XX century, the Severo-Dvinskaya gallery (named after prof. Amalitsky) became the gold basis of the exhibition hall of ancient life in the Geological Museum of St-Petersburg. The museum hall was completed with a cast of the Diplodicus carnegii skeleton presented by E.Carnegy fund in 1913, at the 300-th anniversary of the Romanovs dynasty.

I found a different version of what seems to be the same photo (greyscaled, lower resolution, but showing more of the surrounding area) here:

1932-jyosqjdogynshijh rp cpodtegqnhjimtgalwjo

What we have here is a truly bizarre mount of Diplodocus – almost certainly one of the casts of the D. carnegii holotype CM 84 — with perfectly erect, parasagittal hind-limbs, but bizarrely everted elbows.

There are a few mysteries here.

First, where and when was this photo taken? Christine’s email described this as a “picture of a Diplodocus cast taken in St. Petersburg around 1920″, and the caption above seems to confirm that location; but then why is it copyright the Paleontological Museum, Moscow? Since the web-site in question is for a Swedish museum, it’s not forthcoming.

The second photo is from the web-site of the Borisyak Paleontological Institute in Moscow, but that site unfortunately provides no caption. The juxtaposition with two more modern Diplodocus-skeleton photos that are from its own gallery perhaps suggest that the modern mount shown in the more recent photographs is a re-pose of the old mount in the black-and white photo. If so, that might mean that the skeleton was actually in Moscow all along rather than St. Petersburg, or perhaps that it was moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow and  remounted there.

Does anyone know? Has anyone out there visited the St. Petersburg museum recently and seen whether there is still a Diplodocus skeleton there? If so, is it still mounted in this bizarre way? Better yet, do you have photos?

Tornier's sprawling, disarticulated reconstruction of Diplodocus, modified from Tornier (1909, plate II).

Tornier’s sprawling, disarticulated reconstruction of Diplodocus, modified from Tornier (1909, plate II).

The second question of course is why was this posture used? This pose makes no sense for several reasons — one of which is that even if Diplodocus could attain this posture it would only serve to leave the forefeet under the torso in the same position as erect forelimbs would have them. The pose only makes any kind of sense at all if you imagine the animal lowering its torso to drink; but given that it had a flexible six-meter-long neck, that hardly seems necessary.

Of course Diplodocus does have a history of odd postures: because of the completeness of the D. carnegii holotype, it became the subject of the Sauropod Posture Wars between Tornier, Hay and Holland in the early 20th Century. Both Tornier (1909) and Hay (1910) favoured a sprawling posture like that of lizards (see images above and below), and were soundly refuted by Holland

The form and attitudes of Diplodocus. Hay (1910: plate 1)

The form and attitudes of Diplodocus. Hay (1910: plate 1)

But the Tornier and Hay postures bear no relation to that of the mounted skeleton in the photographs above: they position the forefeet far lateral to the torso, and affect the hindlimbs as well as the forelimbs. So whatever the Russian mount was doing, I don’t think it can have been intended as a representation of the Tornier/Hay hypothesis.

But it gets even weirder. Christine tells me that “I’m aware of [...] the tests that Holland performed on the Russian cast to get rid of the hypothesis suggesting a potential lizard-like posture. So I think that he would have never allowed such a posture for one of the casts he mounted himself.” Now I didn’t know that Holland had executed the mounting of this cast. Assuming that’s right, it makes it even more inexplicable that he would have allowed such a posture.

Or did he?

Christine’s email finishes by asking: “What do you think? do you think that somebody could have come behind Holland to change the position? do you know any colleague or publication who could mention this peculiar cast and comment its posture?”

Can anyone help?


  • Hay, Oliver. P. 1910. On the manner of locomotion of the dinosaurs, especially Diplodocus, with remarks on the origin of birds. Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences 12(1):1-25.
  • Holland, W. J. 1910. A review of some recent criticisms of the restorations of sauropod dinosaurs existing in the museums of the United States, with special reference to that of Diplodocus carnegiei in the Carnegie museum. American Naturalist 44:259-283.
  • Nieuwland, Ilja. 2010. The colossal stranger. Andrew Carnegie and Diplodocus intrude European Culture, 1904–1912. Endeavour 34(2):61-68.
  • Tornier, Gustav. 1909. Wie war der Diplodocus carnegii wirklich gebaut? Sitzungsbericht der Gesellschaft naturforschender Freunde zu Berlin 4:193– 209.

Illustration talk slide 32

Illustration talk slide 33

Illustration talk slide 34

The links in the first slide:

Mike’s post on desaturating the background in specimen photos is here, and previous posts in this series are here.

Illustration talk slide 23

Illustration talk slide 24

Illustration talk slide 25

Illustration talk slide 26

Illustration talk slide 27

Illustration talk slide 28

Illustration talk slide 29

Illustration talk slide 30

Illustration talk slide 31

Previous posts in this series are here.

Illustration talk slide 16

Illustration talk slide 17

Illustration talk slide 18

Previous posts in this series:

Part 1: Intro and Stromer

Part 2: Taking good photos

Part 3: Backdrops and lighting

And the rest of the series is here.

Today (12th February) is the one-year anniversary of the first PeerJ papers! As Matt put it in an email this morning:

Hard to believe it’s been a year already. On the other hand, it’s also hard to believe that it’s only been a year. PeerJ is just such an established part of my worldview now.

That’s exactly right. PeerJ has so completely rewritten the rule-book (on price, speed and quality of service) that now when I’m thinking about new papers I’m going to write, the question I ask myself is no longer “Where shall I send this?” but “Is there any reason not to send it to PeerJ?”


Dorsals A and B (probably D8 and D9) of NHM R5937, “The Archbishop”, a still-undescribed brachiosaurid sauropod from the Upper Jurassic Tendaguru Formation of Tanzania, which I will get done this year, and which is destined for PeerJ. Top row: dorsal view with anterior to the right. Bottom row, from left to right: left lateral, posterior, right lateral, anterior.

Yesterday in the comments of a post on The Scholarly Kitchen, Harvey Kane asked me “I am curious as to where you get the notion that publishing OA is less expensive and in some way “better” than the traditional model?” My reply was (in part):

My notion that OA publishing yields better results than traditional is rooted in the online-only nature of articles, which allows them to ignore arbitrary limits on word-count, number of figures, use of colour, etc., and to exploit online-only formats such as video, 3d models, CT-slice stacks, etc. In my own field of vertebrate palaeontology, it’s now routine to see in PLOS ONE descriptive articles that are many times more comprehensive than their equivalents in traditional journals — see for example the recent description of the frog Beelzebufo.

Of course there is nothing specific to open-access about this: there is no technical reason why an online-only subscription journal shouldn’t publish similarly detailed articles. But my experience so far has been that they don’t — perhaps because they are tied to the mindset that pages and illustrations are limited resources.

For Beelzebufo in PLOS ONE, read baby Parasaurolophus in PeerJ, which we described as “the world’s most open-access dinosaur“. This paper is 83 pages of technicolour goodness, plus all the 3d models you can eat. And the crazy thing is, this sort of detail in descriptive papers is not even exceptional any more — see for example the recent description of Canardia in PLOS ONE, or this analysis of croc respiration in PeerJ

Years ago, I said that in the Archbishop descriptions I wanted to raise the bar for quality of illustration. Well, I’ve taken so long over getting the Archbishop done that the bar has been raised, and now I’m scrambling to catch up. Certainly the illustrations even in our 2011 description of Brontomerus are starting to look a bit old-fashioned.

And of course, the truly astonishing thing about PeerJ is that it does this so very cheaply. Because I’m already a member (which cost me $99), the Archbishop description is going to be free to me to publish this year. (This year for sure!) If we also get our Barosaurus neck preprint published properly this year,then I’ll have to find $100 to upgrade my Basic membership to Enhanced. That’s cheap enough that it’s not even worth going through the hassle of trying to get Bristol to pay for me. And if I ever hit a year when I publish three or more papers, I’ll upgrade once more (for another $100) to the Investigator plan and then that’s it: I’m done paying PeerJ forever, however many papers I publish there. (Matt jumped straight to the all-you-can-eat plan, so he wouldn’t even have to think about it ever again.)

Barosaurus lentus holotype YPM 429, Vertebra Q (C?13). Top row: left ventrolateral view. Middle row, from left to right: anterior view, with ventral to the right; ventral view; posterior view, with ventral to the left. Bottom row: right lateral view, inverted. Inset shows diapophyseal facet on right side of vertebra, indicating that the cervical ribs were unfused in this individual despite its great size. Note the broad, flat prezygapophyseal facet visible in anterior view. (Taylor and Wedel 2013b: figure 6)

Barosaurus lentus holotype YPM 429, Vertebra Q (C?13). Top row: left ventrolateral view. Middle row, from left to right: anterior view, with ventral to the right; ventral view; posterior view, with ventral to the left. Bottom row: right lateral view, inverted. Inset shows diapophyseal facet on right side of vertebra, indicating that the cervical ribs were unfused in this individual despite its great size. Note the broad, flat prezygapophyseal facet visible in anterior view. (Taylor and Wedel 2013b: figure 6)

PeerJ’s pricing is making PLOS ONE’s $1350 APC look distinctly old-fashioned; and the $3000 charged by the legacy publishers (for a distinctly inferior product) is now frankly embarrassing. You might expect that as such low prices, PeerJ’s quality of service would suffer, but that’s not been our experience: editing, reviewing, typesetting and proofing for our neck-anatomy paper were all up there with the best we’ve received anywhere.

And it’s great to see that it’s not just minor researchers like Matt and me who are persuaded by PeerJ: they’ve now accumulated a frankly stellar list of 20 universities (so far) with institutional plans for researchers to publish there. When I say “stellar” I mean that the list includes Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, Berkeley, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, UCL, Carnegie Mellon, Duke … the list goes on.

We can only hope that the next year, and the next ten and twenty, are as successful for PeerJ as the first has been; and that other New Generation publishers will join it in pushing the field forward.

I leave the last word to Matt:

I’m getting Vicki a lifetime membership for Valentine’s Day. Because I’m a romantic.

She’s a lucky, lucky woman.

“Look at all the things you’ve done for me
Opened up my eyes,
Taught me how to see,
Notice every tree.”

So sings Dot in Move On, the climactic number of Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning music Sunday in the Park with George, which on the surface is about the post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat, but turns out to be a study of obsession and creativity.


Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte – 1884 [A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884]

“Taught me how to see”? What kind of talk is that? One the surface, it seems silly — we all know how to see. We do it constantly, without thinking. Yet it’s something that artists talk about all the time. And anyone who’s sat down and seriously tried to paint or draw something will have some understanding of what the phrase means. We have such strong implicit ideas of what things look like that we tend to reproduce what we “know” is there rather than what’s actually there. Like I said, we see without thinking.

In fact, the psychology of perception is complicated and sophisticated, and the brain does an extraordinary amount of filtering of the visual signals we get, to save us the bother of having to consciously process way too much data. This is a whole scientific field of its own, and I’m going to avoid saying very much about it for fear of making a fool of myself — as scientists so often do when wandering outside their own field. But I think it’s fair to say that we all have a tendency to see what we expect to see.


Phylogeny of Sauropoda, strict consensus of most parsimonious trees according to Wilson (2002:fig. 13a)

In the case of sauropods, this tendency has meant that we’ve all been startlingly bad at seeing pneumaticity in the caudal vertebrae of sauropods. Because the literature has trained us to assume it’s not there. For example, in the two competing sauropod phylogenies that dominated the 2000s, both Wilson (2002) and Upchurch et al. (2004) scored caudal pneumaticity as very rare: Wilson’s character 119, “Anterior caudal centra, pneumatopores (pleurocoels)”, was scored 1 only for Diplodocus and Barosaurus; and  Upchurch et al. (2004:286) wrote that “A few taxa (Barosaurus, Diplodocus, and Neuquensaurus) have pleurocoel-like openings in the lateral surfaces of the cranial [caudal] centra that lead into complex internal chambers”. That’s all.

And that’s part of the reason that every year since World War II, a million people have walked right past the awesome mounted brachiosaur in the Museum Für Naturkunde Berlin without noticing that it has pneumatic caudals. After all, we all knew that brachiosaur caudals were apneumatic.

But in my 2005 Progressive Palaeontology talk about upper limits on the mass of land animals estimated through the articular area of limb-bone cartilage, I included this slide that shows how much bigger the acetabulum of Giraffatitan is than the femoral head that it houses:

Screenshot from 2014-01-24 17:30:30

And looking at that picture made me wonder: those dark areas on the sides of the first few caudals (other than the first, which is a very obvious plaster model) certainly look pneumatic.

Then a few years later, I was invited to give a talk at the Museum Für Naturkunde Berlin itself, on the subject “Brachiosaurus brancai is not Brachiosaurus“. (This of course was drawn from the work that became my subsequent paper on that subject, Taylor 2009) And as I was going through my photos to prepare the slides of that talk, I thought to myself: darn it, yes, it does have pneumatic caudals!

So I threw this slide into the talk, just in passing:

Screenshot from 2014-01-24 17:32:06

Those photos were pretty persuasive; and a closer examination of the specimen on that same trip was to prove conclusive.

Meanwhile …

Earlier in 2009, I’d been in Providence, Rhode Island, with my Index Data colleagues. I’d managed to carve a day out of the schedule to hope along the coast to the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut. My main goal was to examine the cervicals of the mounted Apatosaurus (= “Brontosaurus“) excelsus holotype (although it was also on that same trip that I first saw the Barosaurus holotype material that we’ve subsequently published a preprint on).

The Brontosaurus cervicals turned out to be useless, being completely encased in plaster “improvements” so that you can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. hopefully one day they’ll get the funding they want to take that baby down off its scaffold and re-prep the material.

But since I had the privilege of spending quality time with such an iconic specimen, it would have been churlish not to look at the rest of it. And lo and behold, what did I see when I looked at the tail but more pneumaticity that we thought we knew wasn’t there!

Wedel and Taylor (2013b: Figure 10).

An isolated pneumatic fossa is present on the right side of caudal vertebra 13 in Apatosaurus excelsus holotype YPM 1980. The front of the vertebra and the fossa are reconstructed, but enough of the original fossil is visible to show that the feature is genuine. (Wedel and Taylor 2013b: Figure 10).

What does this mean? Do other Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus specimens have pneumatic tails? How pervasive is the pneumaticity? What are the palaeobiological implications?

Stay tuned! All will be revealed in Matt’s next post (or, if you can’t wait, in our recent PLOS ONE paper, Wedel and Taylor 2013b)!



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